Salmon – not so healthy?

Salmon is healthy and we should all eat more of it, right?  It has healthy fats and is very versatile in the kitchen, so what’s not to like?  Where the fish comes from, the methods from which it is raised and the detriment to the environment should change your thinking on ordering that slmon tonight.

If you had Atlantic salmon at the restaurant last night or picked some up at the grocery, it was almost certainly farmed salmon; even if labeled “wild caught” it has a very good chance of having come from a farm.  In a cross country sting operation, Consumer Reports found that a 56% of salmon labeled “wild” in supermarkets was actually farmed.   Even Pacific salmon varities are now commonly farmed as 142 distinct salmon populations in British Columbia alone have gone extinct.  Annual salmon returns to the rivers of the Pacific Northwest are estimated at just 6-7% of their historic levels.  In other words, these pacific fish are quickly going the way of the Atlantic salmon whihc from Maine to Norway is now considered commercially extinct.  This is why if you had Atlantic salmon it was most likely raised in a pen off the Pacific coast. 

So, if the fish was raised on a farm, it’s still healthy, right?  Wrong.  Farmed salmon are fattier than their wild brethren, but not in a good way.  They have the same problem as factory farmed beef in that their balance of omega 3 – omega 6 fatty acids is strongly shifted to the pro-inflammatory omega 6 side.  In other words, the very thing that has gotten salmon to the forefront of healthy eating in the US is being changed by the farming practices used to raise them.  Salmon eat other fish, they get their great nutrition by eating lots of fat and protein from other fish that also have a great and favorable balance of fatty acids.  Obviously one cannot feed live healthy fish to a 100 foot by 100 ft net cage with up to 1000,000 salmon crowded into it.  The answer comes in pellet shape and does actually have some ground fish meal in it.  Unfortunately, it is also incresingly high in soy.  Thanks to US farm subsidies, this detrimental food source is finding its way into more and more of oour food stuffs.  Soy leaves the fish with a very poor fatty acid balance and a much higher percentage of fat to protein than it naturally should contain.  Another staple of wild salmon is krill and shrimp that provide cartonoids and other antioxidant vitamins and nutrients to the salmon.  These give wild salmon its beautiful color and obviously some of its renowned nutrition.  Farmed salmon do not get these natural colorants and therefore the flesh is a pale khaki or dully grey… unless science can come to the rescue…. and it does.  The pharmaceutical gian Hoffman-La Roche becomes the salvation for the salmon farmer by providing “Salmofan” – a dye.  Much like choosing wall color at the paint store, Salmofan is a color chart that allows farmers to choose the shade of the flesh of their salmon.  For example, pale salmon pink is listed as shade #20 and bright orange red is #34.  Appetizing, huh?

Farming salmon was supposed to save the wild fisheries and feed the world, unfortunately that was woefully far from the reality of keeping a carnivorous fish in captivity. The Norwegians actually began this process and have subsequently destroyed their own waters and are now doing the same on the Pacific coast. The early Norwegian farms soon became infected with a  parasite “Gyrodactylus Salaris” which feeds by attatching its mouth to the fish and secreting digestive enzymes to dissolve the scales and skin. This parasite spread to the wild salmon and became so pervasive that the government decided to poison 24 rivers with the pesticide rotenone subsequently killing all natural life. The Norweigans had to move their salmon practices somewhere and America was not very open to the business so they looked north to Canada. There are 149 salmon farms now in British Columbia and all but 19 are owned by big Norwegian companies.  Chile is the new hot spot for farming as they have abundant coastline and cheap labor. In 2007 Chilean farms became overcrowded and had an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia, killed millions of fish and left the survivors full of lesions. Worse yet in Chile, baby salmon are raised in freshwater lakes, not hatcheries and it is there that they pick up native parisites and move them to the offshore net cages. Several cases of human intestional parasites have been traced to farmed salmon. A natural parasite that seems to be reproducing out of control due to farmed salmon is sea lice.  These shape changing crustaceans feed on the scales and skin of fish and a single one can kill a juvenile salmon.  Many farmed salmon are covered in them. In Broughton, British Columbia the lice have spread to the wild population and could drive the wild Broughton pink salmon to extinction by 2011. Data from Ireland, Scotland, and Atlantic Canada shows that disease and parasites from the farms reduce the survival of local wild populations by more than 50% per generation.  To rid the salmon of sea lice Canadian farmers spike the feed with Slice a marine toxin or emamectin benzoate which when administered to rats and dogs causes tremors, spinal deterioration and muscle atrophy. Our own EPA has this substance listed as highly toxic and yet our FDA does not regularly check Canadian farmed salmon for this pesticide. Adding a neurotoxin to a food that was supposed to have brain healthy nutrients  sounds like a bad idea.  Persistant organic compounds or POC are another problem.  Farmed salmon have been shown to contain 10x the levels found in wild variety. Some of the worst chemicals we have used are being concentrated in farmed salmon flesh.  Dioxins from herbacides like agent orange and polychlorinated biphenyls used in paints and pesticides sound scary but they are but a few of the known carcinogens to be found.

Our fish farming practices are taking a quality food source and driving it away from health right toward unhealthy and unsustainable. Wild salmon are still a great food source but it may not be long before they are not even an option for us.